This is my final rant on the matter. Cross my heart. After this, no matter how much the remake and its lover stalk me, I’ll just let it go. I just can’t stand being barraged with post after post about how much better Beauty and the Beast (2017) is compared to its predecessor, without offering at least some defense of the reverse.
And yes, I am definitely biased, but I wanted to like this new movie. You have no idea how hard I tried to give it a chance, only to be bored, irritated, and let down at almost every turn. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it doesn’t deserve half of the critical praise it is receiving, or the credit for “fixing” the original film.
Doesn’t anyone else remember that Beauty and the Beast (1991) was the first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award, because it was just that moving and beautiful and well-structured?
1) The Animation Supplements Where the Acting Might Fall Short
Not enough lines of dialogue for you? Or maybe you’re just not crazy about their delivery? Just add animation!
Personally, I think most of the lines were decently acted, but the nice thing about having an animated story is that it can help carry a lot through fluid movement and even over-exaggeration of expressions.
Communication is about 95% non-vocal, and you would be surprised how much you can learn about a character by looking at things like posture, proximity, touch, and gesture, as well as facial expressions. While the remake adds a few good things such as Belle’s laundry innovation, which shows her as an inventor and innovator in her own right, Emma Watson’s flat delivery of lines and particularly her default to annoyance over fear in stressful, emotional situations makes her feel less human, whereas Paige O’Hara’s Belle and the other animated characters can be silly, but get across much more about who they are in simple gestures. The live-action cast (most of whom I have adored in other films) had a lot to convey, and probably not a lot of good direction, so when they fall flat, they really fall flat.
2) The Original Movie Featured Talented Singers
Emma Watson is not a singer, but that is fine if you can fake it or at least bring some character to the table. The filmmakers clearly had no confidence in her abilities, however, because they polished and autotuned all of the humanity out of her performance. She and the other actors constantly sound as though they are in a studio, not the world of the film itself, and that can be heard distinctly in the lack and diminishing of other sound effects going on in any given scene. They clearly wanted the main showcase to be the singers, so things you might hear like chickens, cart wheels creaking, and other normal town sounds are pushed to the very bottom of the master tracks, if they are even there at all.
Audra McDonald is an actual singer, and a very talented one at that, but she is relegated to “comical” narcolepsy half of the time, and her “song(s)” either get cut short or dial up the silliness that most modern listeners associate with traditional operatic singing.
While the animated singers are less polished to robotic perfection, their flaws provide character and relatability, and their voices are fitting and pleasant to listen to. Paige O’Hara is truly scandalized and outraged by Gaston’s marriage proposal at the start of her reprise, whereas Emma Watson sounds mildly frustrated, but also somewhat uncaring about the situation.
3) Subtlety and Symbolism (Yes, Believe it or Not, in a Cartoon)
Did you ever notice how Belle and the Beast are the only characters in the entire movie to wear the color blue? Particularly during the “Belle” musical number, when said protagonist walks through a town filled with reds and earthy hues? That was done on purpose to set the character apart visually from everyone else, which nicely compliments the song about how weird and different she is without being too overt. It also connects her to the Beast, a fellow outcast.
The new movie doesn’t seem to get that, because half of the townsfolk wear blue. It’s missing all of the nice, subtle little touches of symbolism like that, presumably because its creators either didn’t understand them themselves or assumed that the audience was too dumb to pick up on that.
Instead, it chooses to answer largely irrelevant questions, like how Belle got the Beast onto her horse after the wolf attack. Nevermind that in both versions, Beast probably should have broken Phillipe’s back.
Another example is the introduction of Gaston. He is shown killing a defenseless, harmless animal, for seemingly no reason other than that he could. Its body is then picked up by a slobbering lackey, and immediately after that, the scene cuts to Gaston standing confidently in the shadows, before he then swaggers out into the light. Film language is screaming at you that this guy is a jerk before you even hear him speak a full line of dialogue. He is subtle even in his utter lack of subtlety, and it foreshadows his latter cruelty.
Come to think of it…
4) The Old Movie was Dark and Scary
The Beast’s first speaking scene shows him as a towering, jagged, feral…well, beast. His early behavior and demeanor contrasts with who he becomes later on, as demonstrated when he starts walking upright, wearing nicer clothes, and attempting to eat in a polite, civilized way.
The other dark, scary visuals and tone convey a mean-spirited world that not only drives home the message and warnings to children, but also makes it more satisfying when the main characters emerge victorious and happy at the end. The bigger and more difficult a trial is, the better it feels when finally surmounted.
The new movie’s wolves are kind of scary….but that’s about it. The new Beast looks computer-generated, but not particularly intimidating. I almost don’t blame new Belle for not being even remotely afraid of him.
5) LeFou is Unambiguously a Bad Guy
So LeFou doesn’t live up to his name anymore…I’m not sure why we didn’t just rename him, that being the case.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: how is this new version considered a positive LGBT portrayal? LeFou clearly knows right from wrong here; he’s not as ignorant and stupid as his animated counterpart. And yet his unrequited crush on Gaston makes it okay when he looks the other way, actively choosing to leave an old man to be murdered by wolves in the woods? And then again later, when he has a chance to defy Gaston and stop Maurice from being falsely imprisoned in the explicitly (directly stated in the movie) terrible and corrupt mental institution?
Maurice being rescued in the former case and Belle arriving just in time to stop the latter doesn’t excuse LeFou for his cowardice. Sure, Gaston is clearly unstable, but there is no explicit threat against LeFou and no given reason why he can’t put a stop to the proceedings. He just doesn’t because he’s in love, and therefore that makes it okay.
Nevermind that he backs out of the castle assault at the absolute last minute and thus gets rewarded with arm candy in the end, as if he were one of the good guys all along.
6) The Pace Doesn’t Drag Like a Constipated Elephant
Boy howdy, does the new movie drag on at times! The original was much shorter, but still utilized effective build-up and foreshadowing.
In storytelling, particularly in film, there is a set-up and a payoff for just about every major element. The remake introduces a magical book, as yet another item that the ridiculously cruel Enchantress gave to the Beast, but it is brought up and used once, only to disappear when it could have been useful. Instead of riding off on Phillipe in her medieval prom dress, Belle could have used the book to get back to town instantaneously. She and the Beast don’t even use it to find “adventure in the great, wide somewhere,” so what was really the point of introducing it at all?
There are some decent payoff moments in the new film, don’t get me wrong, but they tried to add too much to make the story fit the longer running time, and it just makes it feel flabby. The added scenes go by too quickly, and the scenes reminiscent of the animated feature constantly remind me that I could be watching the other movie. You know, the one I already own? The one that was perfectly fine by itself, but which people were apparently complaining that it didn’t cater to modern sensibilities enough?
…Sorry. There probably wasn’t a serious demand for this, but Disney manufactured one in their attempt to restock bank accounts and (hopefully) fund more ambitious, creative projects from the studio.
7) Dehumanizing the Villagers Actually Had a Good Point
To paraphrase Lindsay Ellis (the former Nostalgia Chick of Channel Awesome), Beauty and the Beast can be read as a story of innovators being othered by society, which instead glorifies bullies and braggarts.
It’s not just about seeing the beauty within; it’s also about how people ostracize those who are different due to fear and groupthink tendencies, basic tribal inclinations of “us vs. them”. Gaston is attractive, so his behavior is not only excusable, but idolized, whereas Belle is barely tolerated because she is pretty and her father Maurice is held in complete contempt by pretty much everyone. He is tolerated even less than his daughter, and that tolerance is easily and quickly withdrawn once Gaston realizes that he can use him.
The remake has one scene where it attempts this point, when a younger girl is curious about Belle’s donkey-laundry contraption and Belle tries teaching her how to read, only to be yelled at by the child’s father. But a major conceit of the original story is that Belle is the only person to offer the Beast a serious, genuine redemption, in a world that completely shuns and reviles him. The new film goes out of its way to humanize the villagers, including Gaston and LeFou.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad idea – I think that seeing a film where Gaston is actually the hero might be very interesting – but in the context of the original Disney story, it weakens the clear, unambiguous warning that bullies should be discouraged and intelligence and uniqueness should be accepted and celebrated. Because the curse is now specifically said to have caused people to forget the castle’s existence, the story hand waves away the villagers’ responsibility for their fear mongering and attempts to harm others, whereas in the original, they are driven away and never seen again.
It fixes one problem while creating and effectively ignoring another. I don’t think Belle was automatically dismissive of the villagers; no, clearly they dismissed and belittled her first, and she realized that she cannot change their attitudes. She can only persevere and be herself, and she wishes for a world where such a task is easier, but more exciting and challenging as well.
Who among us hasn’t felt misunderstood and left out at one point, left only with the option to try your best to blend in?
You see, when it comes right down to it, Beauty and the Beast (1991) is not without its flaws and problematic elements. But it was a quaint little story with well-paced and well-chosen scenes, which did exactly what was required of them and sometimes no more than that. Fairytales are meant to teach one or two basic lessons in creative settings and situations, but the animators and other filmmakers somehow managed to imbue their adaptation with so much more depth and meaning, far more than anyone would think possible.
The remake, meanwhile, is padded with logical indulgences, and “character development” that is brought up briefly and then never expanded upon, making it seem like superfluous details. The Beast’s tragic backstory and makings of his monstrous new attitude? Barely touched upon, and then forgotten. The significance of Belle’s mother? Not really relevant, and certainly not used to add some connection between her and the Beast, who also had a strained relationship with his parents.
When you watch a film enough times, you start to notice plotholes and logical issues that you once could have glanced over. A good movie is not one that has no issues at all, but simply one that can distract you from them effectively until a few more viewings. Was the original Beauty and the Beast really that distracting and terrible, or is it just that that we’ve all seen it so many times and done all of the jokes and criticism of it to death?
All of the questions that it tries to answer were being supplied by my imagination back in the day. Why was the castle staff cursed along with the Beast, when they technically didn’t do anything wrong? Probably because they kowtowed to his every whim and lead him to becoming extra spoiled and contemptuous of basic human worth when no title or status was attached to it. Why would the Enchantress curse a little boy for one mistake? Probably because people aged faster in the past and children were basically regarded as mini adults once they reached a certain age.
How did Belle get the Beast on her horse if he was unconscious? …Who cares. That’s not what the focus of the story is. It’s fun to crack jokes about, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unimportant. What is important is that Belle saves Beast’s life, just as he saved hers, and they begin to act more conscious and considerate towards one another as a result. Belle is probably the one person in Beast’s life who has repeatedly said no to him and meant no, and he slowly grows to appreciate and respect that about her.
More than any of the previous remakes, Beauty and the Beast is trying to be the original film, when it clearly doesn’t understand half of what made it work. It’s also trying to update some elements, but not trying too hard, or else we might have had something different and new.
I have tolerated and even genuinely enjoyed some of the other live-action remakes thus far, but at the end of the day, this latest movie drives home what hollow cash-grabs they really are. In the case of the Disney Princess films in particular, they are just new vehicles for selling sparkly dresses and merchandise to little girls under the guise of strong, female empowerment.
Clearly nothing like their original iterations, right?